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Above and beyond plan A

Brett Stanley explains how conceptual ideas can turn into far greater realities

6 January 2016


Brett Stanley explains how conceptual ideas can turn into far greater realities

Going from concept to reality with a photo shoot is quite often the hardest part of creating an image. Most times you start with a brief from the client, something wishy-washy and non-specific, which you then absorb before letting your mind’s eye go to town. What comes out the other end is usually a series of compromises, stepping down from the incredible image you saw in your head to the worst-case scenario, ‘this is the best that we can do with the facilities we have’ kind of image.

Obviously the last one is less than ideal, but you’ve got to have a plan B if plan A is just too ambitious. 

Don’t get me wrong, aim for plan A of course — remember the saying: aim for the moon, if you miss you may hit a star.

Now it might appear that I’m setting this up to be a tale of woe, a story of how a shoot went awry, but it’s not. It’s the exact opposite, a tale of how sometimes you get more than you ever dreamed.

It started with a simple brief for a musician’s album cover. She wanted to reflect the two sides to her music, the hard and the soft, the yin and the yang. The creative team sat around the table and we spitballed a few ideas — a day and a night shoot, something out in nature — someone mentioned heading up to Yosemite National Park, California, and the floodgates opened.

I’d been to Yosemite just a month before, and had seen some great places to shoot. It’s such a green and lush park, but also has some blackened areas from the huge forest fires in 2014. I could see it in my head, the soft and beautiful shots surrounded by the green trees, and the hard shots among the blackened trunks. Perfect balance — and quite doable.

As the model was getting ready in the hotel nearby, I set out to scout some locations. I was driving along thinking that I knew where the lush greenery was, but trying to remember how far away it was from the scorched forest, when I noticed the traffic backed up in front of me. It’s not unusual to see traffic when you’re near a national park, as people slow down for animals all the time. I was expecting to see a brown bear or something just as adorable, but it was something much bigger — a controlled forest fire.

Brett Stanley

I couldn’t believe my luck, the fire brigade was just packing up, and as I spoke to one of the firefighters he mentioned it was just a bit of back burning to stop any larger fires from breaking out. I told him what we were going to do, and he said that as long as we stayed close to the road we would be safe. I headed back to the hotel to let the team know that I had the perfect spot for tonight’s shoot, and we may even have some smoke.

Once we got back to the forest, in the dark, I realized how much of an understatement that had been — the trees were still burning. It was incredible, but totally safe. The ground was cold and wet, and the trees that were aflame were set at such an angle that we could use them as a backdrop without any danger. It was the sound that was so amazing — pops and crackles were coming from all around us, and the smell of the wafting smoke was intoxicating, sometimes smelling like incense from the different types of wood surrounding us.

Brett Stanley

We started to shoot and it was looking perfect, more than I could have ever hoped for. I had daydreamed about a smoky, moonlit wood, and I got a flame-filled forest instead. I couldn’t have been happier, except for when halfway through the shoot it started to snow. We were in a forest fire and it was now snowing. This was so much more than plan A, that’s for sure.
The next day, stinking of stale smoke, we headed into the park to take our soft daylight shots, and again we hit pay dirt. On the edge of a steep cliff wall, our model danced as the light snow fell heavier and heavier, further reinforcing the idea that dreams can come true. 

And while I doubt I’ll ever get the smell of smoke out of my gear, I do think we may have missed the moon, but hit a star or two on the way.